Album Review: Kerala Dust – Violet Drive

[Play It Again Sam; 2023]

Before long, our surroundings find their way into us. Originally from the UK, Kerala Dust now find themselves between Berlin and Zurich, and the influence of their new living and workspace are all over the band’s latest album, Violet Drive. It’s of little surprise too, especially after lead singer Edmund Kelly spent time after the release of the band’s 2020 album Light, West roaming around abandoned sites in Berlin with new friend and film director Greg Blakey. “Remnants of the wall in the middle of the city, old motorways built by the Nazis, all of these things that are left to rot because they are quite shameful,” Edmund says of his experiences wandering through derelict terrain.

Violet Drive has all the trimmings of a haunted warehouse coming to life, both in terms of the ghosts of machinery churning away and as a makeshift club venue. At its best, the album combines both these worlds: a dimly lit, sweaty dancefloor with what sounds like pistons firing alongside the thump of a 4/4 beat. This is an album that was built from the drums upwards, so Violet Drive’s main feature is its percussive side, which often is the hook of the song itself. On the title track the driving thrum, twanging strings, and metallic chimes are almost hypnotic; it’s easy to have Kelly’s words go over your head completely, as dusky and complimentary as his intonation is. The whirr and clangour are the hypnotising feature that has you coming back.

Opening track “Moonbeam, Midnight, Howl” is much the same in many regards, albeit with a more club-leaning edge. Sounding like a dimly lit Berlin dancefloor, the texture and embryonic warm bass is the real highlight. “It’s just i’m cautiously falling in love with you,” Kelly seems to forewarn through occasional bluesy guitar inflections. “Still There” hisses and hums like a fog machine as backtracked effects and a female voice seep into the mix while “Engels’ Machine” insists monotonously over inky synths for the listener to “just love this machine.” The dark edge suits the band, and for the most part pairs well with Kelly’s near-spoken word voice (think Fujiya & Miyagi’s David Best, but more sultry and without the tongue in cheek). 

The album does lose a little steam and urgency in its second half, but the back end (for better or worse) also features some of the more intriguing moments. The Middle Eastern twang of “Salt” is a welcome left turn, but the track feels like it is instead focussed all on sonic elements, from the whispered voices, to the flat handclaps, to the scuffled guitar strings. “Future Visions” is pure Portishead pastiche, but at least fits the mood of the album. The trip hop beat and saturated strings, however, feel like they’ve been used a hundred times over (and aren’t helped by Kelly’s vaguely haunted chorus of “I’ve got bad visions of the future / Which are keeping me awake”). Even the plodding two and a half minute instrumental “Nuove Variazioni di una Stanza” is interesting in its own way, an oddly lighthearted collection of noirish tones; it’s kind of like a ghostly carousel full of dolls come to life.

At Violet Drive’s end is perhaps its most contrasting number. “Fine Della Scena” is a soft acoustic ballad that omits any percussion for the most part, an airy swaying send off before guitarist Lawrence Howarth kicks into gear for the final minute. Violet Drive spends its runtime focussed on the drums and midnight hues that a brief respite from them piques the attention, and shows that Kerala Dust are able to comfortably wear a few different hats across a single record.

As said though, Violet Drive’s best comes from when you can sink into its mechanical throb. “Red Light”’s crude oil slick synths against its Bone Machine-like bustle and its cousin “Jacob’s Gun” with its Tom Waits-esque bluesy swagger imprint themselves like a stamp on your wrist from the night before. Leaning into the influence of club music (Kelly cites going to Fabric and Corsica Studios loads in the album’s notes), a fair few of the songs here seem to be approached like they are extended club mix arrangements. The opening duo of “Moonbeam, Midnight, Howl” and “Violet Drive” would be equally (if not more) effective if they cut down the runtime by at least a minute, but are the forgivable instances here since they gel together well and set the tone of the record. “Pulse IV”, however, despite its krautrock influence, grimey feel, and solid beat outstays its welcome, while “Still There” and “Engels’ Machine” do what they need to in about the half the time they run for.

It’s a strange place then that Violet Drive ends up in. There’s moments where you can get fully fixated on the cyclical motions of the drum patterns and where you are almost left wanting for the band to just let the sound play out uninterrupted for longer; in the right hands (probably for a Fabric collection) a few of these tracks would kill with fully fledged club remixes. Equally though the album could be sharper and more concise. Even the pointless 20 second “Shake” does nothing other than hint at a free-form clatter of drums that would have been excellent to hear more of. Its influence heavy on its sleeve, Kerala Dust have definitely captured the location on Violet Drive, but a few cobwebs and dusty pathways could have been cleared to make it more distinct.